Rep. Sestak’s staffers keep jumping ship

Freshman Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), a retired three-star Navy admiral, has fast developed a reputation for being a temperamental and demanding boss. Thirteen staffers have quit this year, say former aides citing public records.

Sestak’s reputation as a difficult manager, which hounded him in the Navy, has followed him to Congress. The Navy Times reported in 2005 that Sestak was relieved from his last post as deputy chief of Naval operations because of “poor command climate.”

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Now, in running his congressional office, Sestak has imported a measure of military toughness; he is battling a “misguided” culture in Washington, said William Walsh, Sestak’s district director.

Aides are expected to work seven days a week, including holidays, often 14 hours each day, going for months without a day off. These are very long hours even by Capitol Hill standards.

After more than nine years on Capitol Hill and only six months as chief of staff, Brian Branton announced on Aug. 17 that he would be leaving Sestak to become vice president for congressional affairs at USA Funds, a nonprofit corporation that guarantees student loans. Sestak also has seen three press secretaries come and go.  

In Sestak’s district office in Media, Pa., staffers are expected to work from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., during the week and part of the day on Saturday. One aide manages the office on Sundays, Walsh said.

Some aides have also bristled at their boss’s temper. At a markup in the House Education and Labor Committee this year, Sestak dressed down a legislative assistant in a manner that got the attention of other lawmakers and aides.

But Sestak does not attribute staff resignations to problems of his own making. “Some had other opportunities, some were not the perfect fit,” he said when asked about the 13 departures, adding, “I have had wonderful people working for me. I have asked a lot of my staff.”

And he works just as hard as his staff, trying to inculcate a military ethic; Walsh confirmed one former staffer’s complaint that he had told aides to read an obituary printed in the U.S. Naval Academy’s alumni magazine about a young female Marine Corps officer killed in Iraq.

“The idea is that we’re here to honor this woman,” Walsh said. “It is about commitment, it’s about those kids over there fighting. It is part of our culture here. You can choose to be here or not. There’s no ego involved, no power trip involved in this.

“I don’t accept the premise that something is wrong systemically. We’re trying to create an environment that requires the same level of effort and effectiveness as” in the Navy.

Walsh acknowledged that Capitol Hill and the military are “very separate cultures,” and “neither is exactly right for everyone.”

The environment was so difficult for some aides that they quit without having found a new job.

Five former staffers who spoke to The Hill on the condition that they not be quoted cited excessive work hours and Sestak’s temper as reasons for their departure.

Sestak’s office does not dispute that the lawmaker expects much from the people who work for him. “He’s a very demanding guy, but he is pretty up front with his expectations,” Clarence Tong, Sestak’s new communications director, said. “As long as you know what he’s looking for and do good work, he values that.”

There are many demanding bosses on Capitol Hill, and there are extra pressures in a freshman member’s office, where everyone is adjusting to new circumstances. Many freshmen also face tougher reelection races than their more senior colleagues, but all lawmakers cope with long hours and constant travel, constituents’ needs, and more or less perpetual campaigning.

Sestak said that translating his ideas into policy while attempting to fill the shoes of former Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), a 20-year incumbent of a district that leans Republican, has placed great demands on his staff.

“Change is disruptive, hard and demanding,” he said. “I find that to be hard work. I treat my staff with utmost respect. I don’t apologize for [having high expectations].”

Sestak’s management style does not appear to have damaged his reputation among other lawmakers. Nor has it undermined his reelection chances.

He has become a spokesman for his party on Iraq and other military issues, and he has appeared on “Meet the Press” and other national talk shows.

In his district, local Republicans privately acknowledge that Sestak is doing everything he can to reach out to constituents.
And he has raised more than $1 million for his campaign, according to Federal Election Commission filings for the second quarter of 2007. No strong Republican challenger has emerged.  

Still, turnover has plagued Sestak’s office since January. Most new lawmakers move quickly to hire chiefs of staff, but Sestak
waited until the end of February. He sought and received a waiver from the ethics committee so that his sister, Elizabeth, could help set up the office, former aides say.

“We have a cohesive team that has truly come together,” Sestak said. “I respect every person we have had.”